The heavily hyped new reboot of Sam Raimi’s cultishly cherished and influential 1981 horror film The Evil Dead is probably not, contrary to the poster claims, “the most terrifying movie you’ll ever see.” On the other hand, you wouldn’t want the job of cleaning up after it.
Awash in slapstick carnage, with bodies that spew, gush, rupture and die hard in myriad ways, the film, directed by Raimi’s Uruguayan protégé, Fede Alvarez, is a respectful homage to the foundation film in a proudly disreputable genre. So long as you grit your teeth and keep your eyes on the screen, it’s an enjoyable, if almost academic, exercise in bad taste.
Unlike so many horrifyingly dull horror reboots of the past decade, Evil Dead (the definite article has been amputated), is crafted with awareness of the franchise’s attentive fan base. That means the film (the fourth in the Evil Dead series) is deliberately familiar in its plot, sepia-colour palette, swooping demon-cam shots and preference for old-fashioned prosthetics over CGI effects. But the well-edited new version succeeds at stirring some fresh gusto into the familiar pot of gore.
Unlike the carefree kids of 1981 – Michigan students on spring break – this group of young professionals is convening in a remote location with a moral purpose. David (Shiloh Fernandez), a young mechanic, arrives at a dilapidated cabin along with his bland, blond new girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), where the old gang is already gathered. They include a bossy nurse, Olivia (Jessica Lucas), who seems to be David’s touchy ex, and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), a hippie school teacher who resembles Beavis and Butt-head’s Mr. Van Driessen, and has some similar emotional-betrayal issues. They have reunited to assist David’s dark-eyed, sullen sister, Mia (Jane Levy), get off heroin by going cold turkey. The troubled Mia also has a beef with David, because he left her with the responsibility of taking care of their dying, mentally ill mother.
The Screenplay 101 backstory is designed to make this a tale about David’s fight to overcome his habitual wussiness, though character conflicts are significant only in the film’s first 15 minutes, before the fun begins. After Mia’s drug-withdrawal symptoms start to kick in, she has her first supernatural encounter in the woods, where, in a repeat of the original film, she is sexually assaulted by a tree. (Otherwise the film is so careful in maintaining its non-explicit rating that Mia even takes a shower while partly dressed.)
Back in the cabin, the others assume her agitated state is a symptom of withdrawal, and they are determined to keep her confined in the cabin, whatever she says or does. The discovery of a basement full of strung-up, charred, dead-cat carcasses and a book of black magic doesn’t convince them otherwise and they stick to the plan, even when Mia’s demonic possession goes viral.
Most of the film’s final hour involves the characters employing the cabin’s inventory of available weapons – shot gun, electric carving knife, nail gun, utility knife, shovel, boiling water, gasoline, toilet-tank cover, chainsaw – to mutilate themselves and each other in splatterific and – judging by the preview audience’s gasps, groans and laughter – crowd-pleasing ways.
As to the laughter element, the presence of Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) as one of the three credited script writers leads to an expectation of more verbal comedy here. Possibly her contribution got lost in the rewrites. Apart from a couple of one-liners from Eric, as the designated supernatural explainer, the humour here arises almost entirely from the hyperbolic violence, which, more than 30 years after Raimi’s original movie shocker, feels familiar, and almost safely outrageous.